Thursday, December 30, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 Wrapup

It's time to wrap up for the Back to the Classics Challenge for the year. As is becoming a motif,... I read books for more prompts than I managed to write about. (Read all twelve, blogged about nine.) Here are the ones I blogged:

20th Century Classic

Ivo Andrić' The Bridge on the Drina

Classic by a Woman Author

Mary Wollstonecraft's Letters Written from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark

A Classic in Translation

Halldór Laxness' Independent People

A Classic by a New-to-you Author

Henryk Sienkiewicz' Quo Vadis

New-to-you Classic by a Favorite Author

R. L. Stevenson's The Black Arrow

A Children's Classic

Howard Pyle's Men of Iron

A Humorous Classic

Jose Maria Eça de Queirós' The City and the Mountains

A Classic with an Animal in the Title

Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark

A Travel Classic

R. L. Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes

The Eça de Queirós and Wollstonecraft were library books and so missed their photo op. That's nine of the twelve categories of which I predicted...3 (!) in the original post. Even for me that's a particularly poor rate of followthrough.

Then there were the three that got away...

I've had half a post for Major Barbara in the queue for a while, but it probably won't get published now. The Maias is the book I finished most recently and I might yet write about it, (Very good! Though tricky to write about with its couple of surprise twists...) but I won't by the end of the year.

In any case All Hail! to Karen for hosting this great challenge again. 😉 And Happy New Year to all!

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Emma Lathen's Double, Double, Oil and Trouble

There's been a couple from the John Putnam Thatcher series featured lately at Major Yammerton's, which reminded me I had one I haven't ever read. (Or maybe I have, but it's been a while & I've forgotten. Good enough!)

John Putnam Thatcher is a high-powered executive at Sloan Guaranty Bank on Wall Street. He's in Switzerland for other business reasons when he's called in to make a ransom payoff; Davidson Wylie, a key employee at Macklin Drilling, one of Sloan's clients, was kidnapped in Turkey by 'Black Tuesday.' Macklin will be paying, and Thatcher is asked to hand over the money to a numbered Swiss bank account.

But Wylie isn't released. What went wrong? And who is Black Tuesday? Palestinians? Eco-terrorists? (It is an oil company under attack.) 

It's an important moment for Macklin: they're in the process of bidding for a North Sea oil site off the coast of Scotland; a German company is their main rival. Wylie was crucial to the bid.

Three weeks later, after some half-hearted negotiations, Wylie is released. By then the bid has been decided, and Macklin won even without Wylie's presence. Wylie is terrified and refuses to help police track down his kidnappers. He flies off to Houston (Macklin's headquarters) for some R&R, but is murdered a few days later.

There's another body--this one in London--before Thatcher solves this one. Pretty fun.

This comes out in 1978 when North Sea oil and OPEC are important issues. (That's assuming they aren't always.) But Emma Lathen isn't a writer of political thrillers, or not exactly, instead owing more to Golden Age mystery conventions, and we've met all the possible suspects by about page 40. (Emma Lathen also isn't Emma Lathen. It's a pseudonym for two high-powered professional women: one a New York lawyer; the other an economics professor.) This is the seventeenth in the series. There were seven more to come.

As it is the world of high finance and oil exploration, it moves around: Switzerland, Istanbul, Greece, Houston, New York, London, Scotland facing the North Sea. It was amusing to see Houston in the 70s, where I was for my undergraduate years. (Though this would be a little before my time.) 

And all that traveling means I get to count it for:

Though the chat between the Istanbul cops was pretty entertaining, I think we'll go with that opening scene in the world of Swiss bankers...

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Sally Simpkin's Lament (Poem For A Thursday)


Sally Simpkin's Lament

"Oh! What is that comes gliding in,
And quite in middling haste?
It is the picture of my Jones,
And painted to the waist.

It is not painted to the life,
For where's the trousers blue?
Oh Jones, my dear! Oh dear! my Jones,
What is become of you?"

"Oh! Sally dear, it is too true,--
The half that you remark,
Is come to say my other half
Is bit off by a shark!

Oh! Sally, sharks do things by halves,
Yet most completely do!
A bite in one places seems enough,
But I've been bit in two.

You know I once was all your own,
But now a shark must share!
But let that pass--for now to you
I'm neither here nor there.

Alas! Death has a strange divorce
Effected in the sea.
It has divided me from you,
And even me from me.

Don't fear my ghost will walk o' nights
To haunt as people say;
My ghost can't walk, for oh! my legs
Are many leagues away!

Lord! Think, when I am swimming round
And looking where the boat is,
A shark just snaps away a half
Without a quarter's notice!

One half is here, the other half
Is near Columbia placed:
Oh, Sally! I have got the whole
Atlantic for my waist.

But now adieu--a long adieu!
I've solved Death's awful riddle.
I would say more, but I am doomed
To break off in the middle!"

-Thomas Hood

I no longer have any clue where I first came across this poem--it doesn't seem to be in any book I have--but nevertheless it sticks in my head...

Thomas Hood lived from 1799 to 1845 and that's his portrait up there from the National Portrait Gallery. Is there just possibly a hint of a smile on his face?

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark

"She would live for it, work for it, die for it; but she was going to have it; time after time, height after height. She could hear the crash of the orchestra again, and she rose on the brasses. She would have it, what the trumpets were singing! She would have it, have it--it!"

Jules Breton's Song of the Lark
Thea Kronborg, the heroine of Willa Cather's novel The Song of the Lark, is in Chicago and has just heard an orchestral program beginning with Dvorak's New World Symphony and concluding with music from Wagner's Ring Cycle.

And well, what then? She gets it.

Thea grows up in a small town in rural Colorado in the late 1800s. The big city is Denver--not that big at the time--and the bigger is Chicago. The family background is Swedish. Her father is a minister, rival to the Baptists across town, and she's in the middle of a mess of children. Her parents are good people and are good with her, but she needs to get out, to get to the big city, and even they recognize it. She takes piano lessons from the washed-up Wunsch, a drunkard, but once a solid German musician, who knows she has a gift; the town doctor, Howard Archie, saves her from pneumonia; Ray Kennedy, a brakeman on the railroad, plans to marry her when she gets older; the Mexican community in town--Spanish Johnny, Mrs. Tellamantez--loves to hear her sing.

Still the challenges are hard: she's a girl, in the 1800s, lower middle class at best, born in the back of beyond, 'hating a world that let her grow up so ignorant.' If she didn't have her gift--of a voice--even her intelligence, her solid grounding in music, wouldn't have been enough. And if she didn't have people looking out for her--Dr. Archie, Ray Kennedy, Wunsch, her parents--she wouldn't have made it either, she would have died on the way, either literally or figuratively. But she does, and she does.

So: it's the story of a girl becoming an artist, a Künstlerroman. (Or should it be Künstlerinroman?) What's the formula to success? (In case you wanted to know.) Early training--though her Hungarian piano teacher in Chicago tells her she didn't start the piano early enough to become a great concert pianist; support from those around her; luck; talent, naturally. Hard work, of course.  Thea's considered a bit of a grind by most everyone around her:

"A growing girl needs lots of sleep, Ray providently remarked.
Thea moved restlessly on the buggy cushions. "They need other things more," she muttered.
But she also has to be strong. Thea gets various things from the men in her childhood: her father is learned, the town doctor looks after her, her music-teacher, but from her mother she gets her 'constitution,' and that's a crucial ingredient. In Mrs. Kronborg's case, her strong constitution means that she can bear seven children, raise them, and never be sick; it plays out differently in Thea's case, but she, too, has incredible stamina.

It seems Willa Cather regretted the title. Lark-song ended up suggesting twittering small birds to most, but Cather didn't mean that: she was thinking of the painting by Breton. There's a solidity to the farm-girl in the painting and that was what Cather wanted to convey.

The last element to come to Thea was a certain self-knowledge. She goes to Panther Canyon in Arizona and lives in an Anasazi cliff-dwelling until she achieves the necessary confidence and self-awareness. Panther Canyon is Walnut Canyon (near Flagstaff) in disguise:

Walnut canyon cliff dwellings

And so she becomes not Thea, but Kronborg, a major opera singer.

I went through a bit of a Willa Cather phase twenty years ago or so, and I read the novel then. It's a great novel, and I was glad to reread it. At the time, though, I figured it was basically autobiographical, with a change of art from writing to opera for dramatic purposes. (Also the love object changed from a Frederica to a Fred because Cather would have felt she had to.) And that's not entirely wrong--there is a lot of autobiography in the book. But what I didn't know, until I read Alex Ross' Wagnerism earlier this year, is that's not all there is. Quite a lot of Thea Kronborg is drawn from the actual Swedish-American opera star Olive Fremstad. Cather wrote a fair amount of journalism, especially early in her career, reviewed several of Fremstad's performances, and later wrote an extended profile of Fremstad. The two became friends. Also Alex Ross, who would know--he's the music writer for the New Yorker--thinks that Willa Cather actually knows quite a bit about opera. I'm sure that all went past me the first time--and kind of did again this time, though I tried to think about it more--because I don't really know anything about opera. 

Anyway, a great novel, and I'm glad I put it on my Classics Club spin list

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Jenny Erpenbeck's The End of Days

 "The end of a day on which a life has ended is still far from being the end of days."

Lives end pretty frequently for the female protagonist in Jenny Erpenbeck's The End of Days, people die around her, but those deaths also include her own. Four times she dies and we see what that death does to the people around her; four times, through the magic of fiction, she avoids her death and carries on; only the fifth, at the age of ninety does she die for good--or ill.

The protagonist (unnamed, so I'm going to have to awkwardly keep calling her the protagonist) is born in Brody around 1900, a town now in the Ukraine, but then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. She's the eldest child of a Jewish mother and German father.

I'm going to unpick Erpenbeck's structure and give the story of the protagonist straightforwardly; it's easier; but it's also the case the suspense is in how she dies, and revealing the causes of death feels a bit spoiler-ish. And there are so very many ways for a woman with that background to die in Eastern Europe in the 20th century. 

Her father is a civil servant with the Austro-Hungarian empire, initially working for the railroad, and of the lowest pay grade. Even in a provincial town, the family can barely make ends meet. A younger sister is born. The father has the opportunity to take a job with the meteorological institutes in Vienna. He moves up a couple of grades, but then Vienna is so much more expensive. Then WWI comes, the Austro-Hungarian empire is broken up, and Austria is impoverished. "One month's salary, if she [the girl's mother] stretched it skilfully, would last a week." The novel does have its moments of grim humor.

The opening quote comes from those years. The protagonist's best friend dies of the Spanish flu; the protagonist is half in love with her dead friend's boyfriend. At this time the protagonist is sneaking off from the house; the mother assumes she's prostituting herself, but in fact she's joined the Communist party. She writes a novel. She leaves for Russia and marries a German Communist there. (From here on in, she's referred to as Comrade H., or Frau Hoffmann, so maybe I will, too.) The years of the Stalinist terror come. Another dark joke:
"Three prisoners are sitting in a cell and they get to talking.
Why are you in prison?
I was for Bukharin.
What about you?
I was against Bukharin.
And you?
I am Bukharin."
After the second World War ends, Frau Hoffmann moves to East Germany. Herr Hoffmann is dead, but she had a child by another man and the child comes with her. In East Germany she's a celebrated author, but her reputation doesn't extend outside the Communist world. Late in life she suffers dementia and her son is forced to commit her to a nursing home.

The novel came out in German in 2012 and was translated into English by Susan Bernofsky in 2014.

Two of her four premature deaths are political; the other two more domestic. It gives a great sense of how contingent life was in that time and place. The Holocaust lurks, but none of Frau Hoffmann's deaths are caused directly by the Holocaust. It's a novel as history of the 20th century, like The Eighth Life (For Brilka) -- I thought this much better -- or Earthly Powers -- hmm, Earthly Powers is awfully good. I understand Erpenbeck was trying to universalize her character by leaving her unnamed, but it did sometimes lead to awkward moments in the prose, I thought. Still this was very good, touching and surprising both.

Ukraine, Germany, Russia and--though I still need Russia--Austria, which is how I'm counting it...


Thursday, December 2, 2021



I care not for these Ladies
That must be woode and praide,
Give me kind Amarillis
The wanton country maide;
Nature art disdaineth
Her beautie is her owne;
  Her when we court and kisse,
  She cries, forsooth, let go:
  But when we come where comfort is,
  She never will say no.

If I love Amarillis,
She gives me fruit and flowers,
But if we love these Ladies,
We must give golden showers;
Give them gold that will sell love,
Give me the Nutbrowne lasse,
  Who when we court and kisse,
  She cries, forsooth, let go:
  But when we come where comfort is,
  She never will say no.

These Ladies must have pillowes,
And beds by strangers wrought,
Give me a Bower of willowes,
Of mosse and leaves unbought,
And fresh Amarillis,
With milke and honie fed,
  Who when we court and kisse,
  She cries, forsooth, let go:
  But when we come where comfort is,
  She never will say no.
-Thomas Campion

Reading Longus' Daphnis and Chloe the other day sent me off to read Theocritus' Idylls. Virtually all the names in Longus are first found in Theocritus (about 400 years earlier). It may be I'll show up with some Theocritus one of these days, but today we have something else in the pastoral tradition from, oh, a few years later... 

In Daphnis and Chloe, Philetas is the elder herder whom everyone considers the best singer, and who passes on his panpipes to Daphnis; Philetas' beloved in Longus is Amarillis (spelling may vary) who becomes his wife. (And is his wife at the time of the story.) 

And then once I started thinking about Amarillises, (Amarilli?) there was Thomas Campion (1567-1620) and his beloved. Campion, of course, also wrote music:

"She gives me fruit and flowers," but in Longus, it's cheeses! In Daphnis and Chloe, somebody is always giving away a cheese.